Fruits and vegetables often come with these little stickers on them. No one really knows why they're there and since they don't get in our way we often tend to just ignore them. But, these stickers do have a purpose and they're not what you think. We're here to finally get to the bottom of why they're on our produce, what they mean, and what it means for us in the long run.
Officially, the sticker is called a PLU sticker and it stands for "price look up." Despite the fact that we've been told they offer information on how our food is grown, they're really just there for cashiers to help them scan items at the correct price and determine what the food is. Given that there are so many variations of fruits and vegetables out there, these stickers tell employees all they need to know about what they're scanning.
The 2016 guidelines published by the International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) further explains everything you ought to know about PLUs. The introduction of these stickers first came in 1990 and they've since acted as a voluntary measure by various countries that are represented on the IFPS board of directors. In other words, a PLU sticker technically isn't a mandatory measure. There are plenty of places you can go where no PLUs can be found on fruits, vegetables, or nuts.
Yes, the numbers published on the stickers are meant to help determine loose items from bulk items, but that doesn't mean consumers can't get some information from them.
According to the IFPS guidelines, numbers on PLUs range from 3000, 4000, and 83000 and 84000 series. This means that the numbers you see on the stickers will either read "3XXX", "4XXX" and so on depending on the item.
Any number from 3000-4999 means that the item was conventionally grown. The IFPS is changing the way PLUs convey information, though, because numbers prefaced with an 8 used to mean the item was genetically modified. However, they are now implementing new rules so that "an additional range of numbers will be used, 83000-83999, for conventionally grown items."
When it comes to organic items, codes used to be prefaced with the number 9. So, for example, any numbers from 93000-94999 meant that an item was organic. While those codes may still be present in stores for the moment, the IFPS is implementing a new system where any number from 84000-84999 will mean organic.
The short answer is: sometimes. Depending on what you purchase and what number you're looking at, you'll still be able to tell what fruit was grown where.
Remember that not every company uses these stickers so it'll be difficult sometimes to find out anything about your produce unless you ask. Technically speaking, companies are not required to include PLU stickers and the numbers in the codes don't mean what they used to. A few years ago, PLU codes starting with the number 8 were indicators that the item was genetically modified. However, nowadays many companies use PLU codes beginning with 8 on items that are organic.
According to the IFPS guidelines, codes prefaced with the number 8 will no longer mean GMOs. "Though the '8' prefix (83000-84999) was once reserved for GMO produce items, the prefix was never used at retail. Stripping the prefix of this particular designation will yield one thousand additional PLU codes to be used in future years," the report said. "The 83000 series will be reserved for conventionally grown items where the 84000 series will designate the corresponding organic item."
You can, however, learn about the country your food was grown in. Though, this has less to do with PLUs themselves and more to do with the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) regulations introduced in the United States in 2009. These regulations were put in place so retailers would inform consumers of where fresh produce was grown. You can find out this information either on the PLUs themselves or on signs placed near bins of produce in stores.
At the end of the day, you'll need to do your own research. If you're super curious about where your food is grown and whether it's been modified then you can look up the PLU codes on the IFPS website.
Though these guidelines can help you figure out a little bit more about your food, consumers often find that PLU stickers don't tell them as much as they'd like to. A 2015 document provided by the IFPS revealed that "the codes are not intended to convey information to consumers." While they acknowledged that supposedly organic foods are prefaced with a number 9, they suggested consumers "should look for the USDA organic seal on the product." They added that consumers should speak with retailers to find out specific growing methods for produce.
Remember that even if you can gain some knowledge from PLUs, they were more so meant for retailers and companies to better scan their items and sort produce. As we mentioned before, it would greatly benefit you to do your own research if you're truly curious about where your food comes from.
No one is denying that those stickers can be hard to peel off fruit sometimes. You can ingest them, though you might not want to do so on a regular basis. Try your best to get the PLUs off your produce so you're not constantly ingesting stickers.
While they may be edible, they're not compostable. It's important to remember that if you use your scraps as compost, the PLU stickers need to be removed first as they're harmful to the cause.
PLU stickers were designed by the IFPS in 1990 so retailers and cashiers could take better stock of their items. They were designed for fruits, vegetables, and nuts so that cashiers know what the items are and how much they cost.
They can provide some information about how an item was grown and whether it's organic, but the stickers weren't meant to give consumers details on their food. If you're truly curious to learn more about your produce then you should consult with retailers or keep an eye out for the USDA seal of approval on items. You can also cross reference your PLU stickers with the IFPS directory to learn more about an item.
You can also ingest them if you find taking them off is too much trouble, but remember to remove them fully before you compost. You should also opt for trying to remove them rather than merely eating them because they're "technically safe."